Fast and Furious: Varun Inamdarby Vinta Nanda January 24 2021, 11:47 pm Estimated Reading Time: 18 mins, 28 secs
A secret I have to reveal, if I must go forward with this interview with Varun Inamdar, is that my bedtime stories time is about watching Get Curried, his YouTube Channel, writes Vinta Nanda.
The episodes are my bedtime stories and I can never go to sleep unless I have watched at least one of them. Get Curried is a heady cocktail of Food mixed with Fun.
Two National Awards winner - Varun Inamdar is regarded as one of the TOP 10 celebrity chefs in the world alongside culinary giants like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay with 18 years of work experience as a trained chef, chocolatier, food stylist, author and an ex-top rank executive at Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, India. He is the chosen chef for all Presidential and Prime Ministerial visits to India and has served over 75 including Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin to name a few.
Globally known as 'The Prince of Chocolates' and 'The Bombay Chef' by fans and followers worldover, he has a reach of over 533 million+ through his digital show 'The Bombay Chef' by Rajshri Productions. He is the Cocoa Brand Ambassador appointed by The Government of Ecuador and is credited to have created India’s first-of-its-kind 6 feet tall Chocolate Mannequin and Chocolate Ganesha Idol on television. With 25 food shows in 2016-17-18-19 he has also featured in MasterChef India on Star Plus. He is currently the Brand Ambassador nominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Swastha Bharat Yatra and Eat Right India. Amongst many coveted awards, he is also a Guinness World Record 2018 holder for 'The World's largest Chocolate Mud Pie' weighing 1346 kgs (3000 Pounds).
I am a huge fan of Varun Inamdar because he makes everything look so simple and fun to do – even if you’re one like me who procrastinates on cooking, you will just go to your kitchen and start experimenting with the things he motivates you to do. Let’s go over to the man and talk to him.
So let's start with you at first - where did the bug to become a chef bite you and why?
I became one because as a child it was my sole interest. Yes, most give stories of how they started cooking at an early age, of how they were influenced by their grandmother and/or mother. Well nothing different happened. The only thing is that I cooked a lot for my neighbours. I had and still have a habit of taking something hand-cooked if invited home for a meet, greet, or a meal. I personally believe it is a better way to break the ice rather than handing over some gift that would be forgotten in the long run.
I believe that food has the strongest memory. Chef Martin Yan was a very big early influence since he was one of the only cooking shows on Indian television in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. He would put up an act almost like a stand-up comedian cooking. Today, sadly, we have both professions stuffed in our faces unlike the humble times.
Then, hotel school happened and since I was borderline 18 then, I squeezed my way into working for a restaurant in Bandra close to my college. Since they couldn’t offer me anything in the kitchen, pot-wash was on offer. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity hence agreed. But I feel that became my stage because I would set the angle of the scrubber and the vessels and keep looking into the kitchen and learn the nuances from the stations. It was a fondue restaurant and that quite impressed me as a technique.
One day, the cook didn’t turn up. I suggested if I could cook for the evening. With a heavy heart they agreed. Rest is history! My take home increased and so did my respect in the kitchen. I loved working as a student for experience. Infact, most people I know today from the film or television industry, are all acquaintances from my days as a dishwasher, waiter, line cook or just an interning host at a restaurant. Life has been so different and has taught me so much at different stages - personally and professionally.
What was the journey thereafter? It would be nice to know the various goals you have achieved to arrive at this place where you're a superchef and hugely popular too.
Sacrifices and pains, well not many, apart from not getting the kind of support from my seniors. Not one person from the community stood with me. Considering I was a complete outsider, I needed a lot of handholding and guidance, but very initially I took it in my stride and started carving my own niche.
Slowly, the media started calling me my own Godfather. Early on I took it with a pinch of salt, but today I understand the gravity of that statement. After I got married, we missed celebrating a lot of landmark days together like festivals, birthdays and anniversaries, but I wouldn’t say that I went through it because as an industry we all go through it at some point in time. We are there to make others’ special days extra special.
Whatever I am today, I am on my own and I am super proud of that. I am happy no one guided me because that gave me opportunities to weigh the brands, situations, projections and the likes and make my own decisions. I wouldn’t have liked it any other way. Goals-wise, I always wanted to be in the public domain and always wanted to cook so this was just a gradual progression. I love people and I am the most comfortable with people around. Having said that, I am most at ease in my own company too. Yes, but all my achievements were very categorically turned into my favour by myself.
I have created opportunities for every idea that was placed in front of me. For instance, the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest pie was not a direct opportunity. It was supposed to be a grand master class with some frills around it. I declined the offer and suggested if we could attempt a record. The organiser agreed and the rest is history. Television, I got rejected by a channel initially as they thought I speak too well. That kind of confused me. But, then Rajjat Barjatya called me one random afternoon and asked if I would like to work with him. I had no reason to decline, because, which newcomer would decline and offer coming from Rajshri?
We started low and slow as we were both ‘digitally’ new with a great past. So we weren’t scared but yes, we had to take steps very carefully because television was still huge but somewhere we knew that the way forward was digital. From 700 to a hundred thousand and now 533 million reach, I think it is remarkable. But through this journey I lost him. I had promised him that I would continue. And, so I am.
You are an author? Tell us about it?
I love writing as much as I like cooking and teaching. Hopefully that shows on screen. I got approached by ‘this’ publishing house and they promised me a 25 books deal. I did my first book and asked for the money and guess what? They disappeared. The book got printed, got a few awards, became a talking point but I never got paid. Then simultaneously I started working on a lot of white labelling projects for International authors. Did some 5 books like that while working on others and many more ideas I am working on.
Some of Varun’s work of authorship are below:
- Best selling author of ‘Celebrate Life, Food and Wine’ - India's first book on pairing Indian food and Indian wines.
- Second cookbook on Indian Summer cooking. Simple breezy recipes.
- India's only Renal Cookbook authored by Varun Inamdar by Abbott. (un-published) for Kidney patients. Since most research work available on the internet is ‘American’ and it is important for healing foods to be of a hyper local nature.
- He’s authored a book for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare called 'Mindful Eating' to promote Millets in India and how millets could be made a part of your daily eating habits by making simple changes in your kitchen inventory.
- Fifth cookbook - My Indian Kitchen with California Walnuts; which celebrated Indian home food from across the sub-continent.
- And, he is a Columnist for Times of India, BBC and Indian Express Group apart from being a guest writer for many more.
A Food Stylist - what is that about and how did it pan out for you to become one?
The way food looks in a magazine, newspaper article, on screen whether television or internet, advertisements, billboards, brand packaging on the shelves, cook books and the likes is the job of a food stylist. There are very few noteworthy ones in India. Nitin Tandon and Saba Gaziyani pioneering it are an industry in themselves. And, I love them both.
Not every chef can be a food stylist (though all of them love calling themselves one) and not necessarily the reverse is a prerequisite. I started doing it out of necessity. Also, I was lucky to meet a very good photographer - Piyush Singh, who over the years has become my friend. He was fresh out of photography school and I had never shot food, but I understood aesthetics and light. And I was dabang to shoot some really ‘against-the-norms’ photographs, which got appreciated for their aesthetics. All in natural light! And then, I happened to do some more work. As a food stylist for Bloomsbury USA, UK, Australia and India, I styled the most expensive cookbook in the world – UTSAV - auctioned at 3 Million. Commissioned: 75 'white labelled' cookbooks, 45 Restaurant menus, 12 International magazines, 25 TVC and 200 consumer packaged goods.
A chocolatier - Wow! Tell us about your chocolate journey along with how you feel after having made it to the best 35 among the under thirty-fives?
Media houses for years have made my story sound like “a boy from a small town now a celebrity chef.” I came from a well guarded middle class home, and have charted my way upwards. And yes, I never liked chocolates as a child. Well, today when I am known as ‘The Prince of Chocolates’, brand ambassador of Ecuadorian cocoa in India, goodwill ambassador of Indian cocoa, I represent India on International forums as an official speaker, I’ve got two National Awards on my shelf, I’m a Guinness World Record holder for the world’s largest chocolate mud pie - it all looks as if I am living someone else’s life.
I have always been a hard core kitchen chef, with no chocolate around me. But life had other plans. I was literally entrusted in the pastry department without knowing a thing. I had no choice. I learned the ropes with my head down handling the managerial jobs too, because I was very good at that. That day I made a promise of winning all awards pertaining to this. I was too adventurous with my goals, but I am happy I worked towards it. So, that was my entry into the chocolate world.
My Guinness World Record should by far be the most challenging thing I have ever taken up, and of course, the one I am most proud of. It all started when I was a child. My father for my 8th birthday had gifted me the Guinness Book of World Records. I was so fascinated by the winners that I told myself there could be nothing bigger than that. I slept that night with the book on my bed. I had no plans of being a part of it ever. But sometimes you outlive your dreams.
And yes, having my name in the ‘35 under 35’ just makes me feel that I am on the right track. But in the middle of all these applauses, I miss the pat on my back from my father. He would have been so proud of me today. He watched my first appearance on TV and said, you are made for this. Keep your head down and keep going.
What is the story behind your brand BARCODE – Artisanal Chocolates’?
I had been to Vietnam years ago to represent India as a chocolatier. I wasn’t the most watched out name on the list, forget being the star! They all thought why a country with no solid cocoa history had a representive chef. I had 15 minutes to speak and my speech moved them and changed their perception towards India’s cocoa.
I had been working on a special project for almost 12 years because it was supposed to be detailed, in-depth and well researched. It was time I brought it to life. I came back to Mumbai and started work on the same. That is how ‘BARCODE – Artisanal Chocolates’ was born. Barcode is all about India. It is a handmade box made from khadi and when you open it, it has a little story about Gandhiji and the role of the natural fibre in our freedom struggle. The box has 29 artisanal chocolate bars that use single-origin chocolates from across the globe. Each bar represents an Indian state. I created this as a private label. Whenever I am invited to meet any foreign dignitary, leader, celebrated star and/or an icon, I carry the box. Over the years, it has been gifted to 51 Prime Ministers and Presidents, including Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, tycoons like Richard Branson, Indra Nooyi, super stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, His Holiness Pope Francis and others.
I don’t rely on strategies at all. I am a chef and not a marketing guru. I keep it simple – taste, flavour, look, mouth feel and memories. Everything cannot be just about strategies. Food loses its essence when attached to strategies. It has to move you. That’s it. Chocolate is emotion. Chocolate doesn’t need marketing. When emotions are attached to marketing, the charm is lost. I don’t know whether I should say this or not, but I have not spent a dime on PR and marketing ever.
Terrific! Your speak about marketing and food is the same as my speak about marketing and storytelling. Like chocolate, stories are like emotion and when marketing is attached to storytelling, content loses its charm as well – one of the reasons the industry of storytelling has become so dependent on formulas. Strategies make content lose their essence as well.
But moving on, the guests who have fed and served comprise some of the most noted people on the planet - Queen Rania of Jordan, The Royal Family of Al Sabah, Al Khalifa and Al Saud Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Nicholas Sarkozy, Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, Film Icons Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, world renowned cricketers Sachin Tendulkar, Sir Vivian Richards, Imran Khan, Business magnates Richard Branson, Indra Nooyi, and Mukesh Ambani to name a few - so pick your top three and tell us why it was an experience of a lifetime for you?
‘To name a few’ just sums up everything for me and is reassuring that this is just a beginning. But I don’t think this is about being a tad extra fortunate. This is about building up on trust and value systems. When such visits are planned, the media starts doing their bit of finding and research. My name crops with it. They try to connect with me, either directly, if there is a rapport, or through the office. As a principle, they are answered with silence. As that is a moral obligation.
Nowhere does my conversation with the organisers ask me to do it, but I feel it’s basic to remain silent because a lot could be at stake. Some understand this stance of mine, some take it personally and cut cords. But to each their own, and I really don’t care beyond a point because I feel, this is the most basic that anybody must understand. Also food habits and patterns are intimate details of someone’s private time even on a professional tour.
Every meal created by me is memorable, the stories and trivia around them could be a book in itself. My most memorable achievement was to serve The Obamas. Barack Obama was the most powerful President in the world. I had the fortune of serving him and Michelle Obama twice in my career. One of the most genuine, honest and humble humans. The first meet was a chance visit, where we weren’t allowed to meet the man, but I happened to breach American security innocently (I wouldn’t be taking this interview today) and the rest is history.
He called me to meet him, and asked me about the special that I had planned for him. I took him through the entire menu, when he asked me if I would like to work with him. I was shocked, shook my head and said, “No”. He laughed and said that it was America’s loss. We both smiled and I bowed out of the conversation.
It of course became memorable and that did not require a reason. But history went on to repeat itself when he visited India the second time serving his term as The President of the United States of America, he remembered me by my name and sent his assistants to look for me. We had a long 3-minute chat that afternoon and parted ways. 3 minutes with the world’s most powerful man seemed like a lifetime.
You can also tell us what are the basic rules you follow while serving VVIP guests?
It is all about being patient because everyone is not the same. And some can really drive you up the wall. But I think it all comes as a package. Some are overtly sweet and humble, though. Thumb rule is to serve them a mix of what they want, the way you think they would appreciate it in terms of its look and plating. Sometimes they just want what they want, so you stick to textual stuff. Simple.
It is all about gauging their state of mind, because at their level, their mind is constantly onto plans that you have no inkling about. So you cannot blame them for the way they sometimes behave, so not only with a pinch of salt, sometimes you have to take it with a spoon of sugar, or gulp it with a glass of water (wink). And, what happens behind closed doors, remains there!
Now about ordinary folk like us - Get Curried is epic! How did it come about?
Ordinary who? You? You must be joking. You got us glued to prime time television. With your contemporary soap opera - Tara on Zee TV, you got families together and spoke about ‘Contemporary Urban Women’ before social media trends hit us in our faces.
Thank you! This interview is about you (I grin) so let’s talk about my favorite food show that I’m addicted to and can’t go to sleep without watching at least one episode every night.
Talking about Get Curried - this happened on the spur. There was no professional chef from India who had a food channel. To add to it, there was nothing in English. Professionally studio shot, with great visuals and packaging is all that was needed. And so was born - Get Curried. I met a lot of seniors at events who took me aside and tried to insult me in the garb of guidance… mat kar… naam kharab ho jayega… television pe koi kaam nahi dega… blah blah blah…
I was very clear about the fact that the world is moving on digitally faster that we could predict. I stuck to my guns and today my digital reach is 533+ Million, which makes me number 3 in the world with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay being the top 2. Today, those same ‘seniors’ call me for advice. Hahahah!
Where are you headed from here? What do you dream of doing now?
I do not follow anybody on social media because I am too humbly consumed with what I do and that is going to continue.
I am constantly on the move and am constantly planning my next project. I am literally making checklists even while bathing, but, having said that, I am completely abreast with the industry news and trends. Like I just opened Mumbai Local Tawa with 80% signature items that you wouldn’t find elsewhere in the realms of Indo-Chinese, Tawa and Tandoor dedicated to the city I love the most in the world - Black schezwan fried Rice, Kaali Peeli Fried Rice dedicated to taxiwallahs of Mumbai, Cocktail ‘Bhidu’ Biryani dedicated to Jackie Shroff who has been with me through thick and thin, Tod Fod Fried Rice, Jhakaas combos, Rocket Bheja, Kaleji Kaali Miri being some iconic dishes.
In a similar vein, I opened a new YouTube channel called - Varun Inamdar for recipes that I want to show the world beyond the boundaries of other channel managements. A lot more is in the pipeline, but I shall let it speak for itself.